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Poe’s Early Schooling and Interest in Science

Written by Murray Ellison

Poe’s early schooling and military training inspire and shape his interest in science. According to Kenneth Silverman, Poe’s secondary education started after his foster parents moved from England to Richmond. In 1821, “Edgar attended the private academy of Joseph H. Clarke,” which served to prepare young gentlemen to obtain “an honorable entrance in any University in the United States.” One of Poe’s classmates wrote a testimonial that he was one of the top students in the class (23).  In The Poe Log, Thomas and Jackson list the classes that students typically enrolled in while at the school, including  English, Languages (French, Latin, and Greek), Arithmetic, Geometry, Trigonometry, Navigation (using celestial observations), Gunnery and Projectiles, Optics, Geography, Maps and Charts, and Astronomy (41, 48). Continuing a description of Poe’s education and experiences, Silverman writes, In February 1826, Edgar Allan Poe was among the first group of students enrolled at the University of Virginia. School records indicate that he was a bright and dedicated student. However, hefty financial and gambling debts to the University and his classmates left him hopelessly in debt. When his foster father refused to continue paying for Poe’s college expenses, he was forced him to drop out of college in March 1827 (Silverman 29-34).

Major William F. Hecker, the author of Private Perry and Mister Poe, writes that Poe enlisted in the United States Army on May 26, 1827, under the alias of Private Poe. He spent three years as an artilleryman stationed for the longest period at Fort Moultrie, in a coastal area of Sullivan’s Island outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Poe spent much of his Army service learning cannon drill and maintenance. This task needed to be performed by a soldier who had extraordinary expertise and skill in the areas of measurement, logistical planning, and design. Army records indicate that Poe was “the most technically competent artillerist in his battery.” He was assigned to “oversee the ammunition supply of the battery.” He was quickly advanced to an artificer, a technical job concerning the “weights and measures of iron and chemicals” (xxxiv).  According to Army records, “Poe was the army’s expert bomb artisan, carefully designing, preparing and constructing inter-connected systems of iron and chemicals with the ultimate goal of explosively destroying his creation (xxxv- xxix).  It was extraordinary for that time that Poe was promoted to a Sergeant Major in less than two years after he enlisted (xxix).  Hecker concludes that Poe’s four years in the Army exposed him to many disparate subjects such as Cryptography, Geography, Oceanography, and Astronomy (xii). Also, he was able to employ many of his training and experiences in his journalistic and fictional works.

Poe In Uniform (Source)

Nineteenth-century science and journalism were undergoing dramatic new advances during and after Poe’s military service during the same the time that he was also embarking on a writing career. These next essays will focus on the ways in which his subsequent journalistic news articles, columns, and essays reflected his and the public’s interest in the emerging scientific trends of the nineteenth century. Much scholarship has been dedicated to Poe’s poetry and fiction, but little to his science narratives written in the style of journalism.

George Daniels, in American Science in the Age of Jackson asserts that many of the most important theories and discoveries of the nineteenth century had already “been well-formulated and new subjects of controversy began to appear.” He argues, “Americans had contributed only minimally to the developing body of world science before the twentieth century” (3-4). This period was more important because it led to new ways for the “popularizers,” to explain science to the public (40).  During the 1830’s, American journalism was beginning to reflect many of the significant social and technological changes of the nineteenth century. Improvements in printing technologies helped to produce and distribute newspapers and magazines more efficiently and less expensively to the public than had previously been possible.  In Discovering the News, Michael Schudson reports, “The development of railroad transportation and telegraphic communications were the necessary preconditions for a cheap, mass-circulation, news-hungry, and independent press” (32). With these changes, newspapers and magazines suddenly were becoming more prevalent to the American public. Also, their ability to influence public attitudes about important issues, such as science, increased as their circulation rose. In 1830, the country had 650 weeklies and 64 dailies, with an average circulation of 78,000. By 1840, there were 1,141 weeklies and 138 dailies, with an average circulation of 300,000 (14). Schudson argues that early nineteenth-century penny newspapers and journals “invented the modern concept of the news.” In the “1830’s newspapers also began to reflect the activities of an increasingly varied, urban, and middle-class society” (22-23). The public’s interest in science also created the need for a new class of writers who could present scientific information in ways that the public could understand. At the same time, new print media sources, such as newspapers, journals, and encyclopedias offered these writers new powerful methods of communicating about science to the public.

It is, therefore, likely that the increased position of newspapers and magazines in the 1830’s  influenced Poe’s decision to publish his works in these new powerful communication mediums. Gerald Kennedy writes, “In Poe’s writing career he worked… as a “proofreader, editor, reviewer” of newspapers in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York—the publishing centers of the United States” (64). These venues also provided him with the “shelter in some happier star” to bring his imaginative ideas to the largest possible audience. Burton R. Pollin comments, in 1973, at the Annual Convention of the Poe Society in Baltimore, “Poe’s whole life was devoted to language-making. Early in his career as a poet, the niceties and refinements of words engaged his passionate devotion. He became a magazinist, as he honorifically called himself, in an age when the trend was “Magazine-ward.” To “use a Poe coinage; then he produced a stream of tales, reviews, essays, and lectures (www.eapoe.org). As a journalist, Poe’s attitude about science began to shift from an ambivalent to a more supportive position. With a reporter’s access to the news, he often wrote enthusiastically about many of the exciting new developments or “treasures” of science. It is hard to determine whether he wrote favorably about science because he was impressed about his topics, or if his editors expected him to write positive reports. By writing about science as a journalist, he could have it both ways: he could report about science, but still keep his personal convictions concealed. Works from this chapter, unless otherwise indicated, will cite from several volumes of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, by James Harrison. In the next column, I will discuss one of Poe’s first investigative reports for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, “Maazel’s Chess-Player.”

**Excerpt from Murray Ellison’s VCU MA Thesis on Poe and 19th-Century Science (© 2015).

Selected Sources

Daniels, George. American Science in the Age of Jackson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Hecker, William F. Private Perry and Mister Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Kennedy, Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Poe. Edgar A. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe Volume XIV: Essays and Miscellaneous. Ed. Harrison, James A. New York: T. Crowell, 1902.

Pollin, Burton R. “Creator of Words.” Baltimore: Lecture delivered at the Fifty-first Annual Commemoration of the Edgar A. Poe Society, July 7, 1973. Web. 1 March 2015.

Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Murray Ellison

About the Author

Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is Co-Editor of the 2017 Poetry Book, Mystic Verses by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, and the Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, VA, and writes a monthly column for the Museum website, thepoeblog.org. He has taught literature classes on Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and F.Scott Fitzgerald (thus far) at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He is the organizer and Coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club, and is the co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a Comment at the bottom of any post.

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